From “your network is your net worth” to “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” you’ve heard all the networking catchphrases. The problem? You’re painfully shy. The thought of putting yourself out there and initiating a conversation with a stranger fills you with dread.
But when it comes to career success, there is, unfortunately, no workaround to building connections. “Networking is about the power of ‘relational capital.’ By building solid connections through networking, you’ll build a group of people who advocate for you,” says business coach Dr. Lacey Book.
According to her, even if you’re not seeking a direct outcome from networking, connecting with others will indirectly nurture future opportunities.
“When you’re ready for the next move, the relationships you’ve built will move the needle forward. And since you’ve built a rapport with those you network with, you’ll feel more comfortable with the people they introduce you to.”
Still not convinced? The only way to truly grasp the potential rewards of pushing through your shyness is to put yourself out there, says Megan Bendtzen, motivational trainer, accountability coach and CEO of LifeBacon:
“If you look back on your life, chances are the most pivotal moments, the biggest rewards, came from something unexpected or following a big risk, even a perceived ‘failure.’ If you can just take a small step outside your comfort zone, chances are it will lead to something beyond what you could have ever foreseen.”
That being said, there are tactics that can help ease the process when you’re excruciatingly shy. We’ve asked Bendtzen and Book, who’ve both helped countless professionals on the path to their dream careers, to share their insights on the topic.
Here are six tips that will help you go from wallflower to seasoned networker in no time.
Get into the right mindset
Your shyness is most likely exacerbated by your mindset around the topic of networking. Reframing your perspective can help ease some of your nerves.
“The most important thing people can do is get out of their heads and understand their value. Create a mindset of abundance that focuses on how your skills can grow your community and benefit the person you’re talking to,” says Book.
Bendtzen recommends making a “win list” to boost your confidence: “Make a ‘win list’ to remind yourself of all the amazing things you’ve already done and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Reviewing this list before heading into a networking event will give your confidence a boost and make it easier to be brave!” she says.
Set yourself up to win
When it comes to attending an event or reaching out to a potentially interesting new contact, feeling prepared is key. Bendtzen suggests writing out a few questions and conversation starters in advance:
“For instance, write out three things that you can ask other people that will help you understand who they are and what they do, and write out three things that you can talk about yourself.”
Topics like holiday plans, their professional backgrounds and pets (yes, pets — people who do have them love talking about them) are all safe bets. “Also, be prepared to answer your own questions as people will ask ‘How about you?’”
“The best way to promote yourself with integrity is to build relationships based on trust and credibility. Don’t try to be all things to all people,” says Book.
If you tend to avoid networking events like the plague, trying to be a super outgoing social butterfly all of a sudden won’t help. “Do networking in small increments, and do it in small bites so you can slowly build your stamina,” says Book.
For example, seek out specific people from your industry and aim to have longer, more meaningful conversations with them instead of trying to talk to dozens of people. “For shy people, every conversation can take up mental space so you need to focus that energy on the conversations that will achieve an outcome.”
Make it a game
Turn the process of networking into a game to make it more fun. “Set some fun goals that will take your mind off the idea of being at a networking event and more focused on winning your game,” says Bendtzen.
“For example, you can’t leave until you exchange five business cards or until you find someone who has been to France, seen Wonder Woman or has been skydiving. Another goal could be getting someone to introduce you to someone you’ve been wanting to meet.”
Book recommends the book The Alter Ego Effect by Todd Herman to help you create your own networking alter ego: “You will realize that your shyness is actually an alter ego. You can create a different alter ego that is not so shy and likes to network.”
Talk to yourself
Want to overcome your shyness about networking? Talk to yourself — both literally and figuratively.
“I like to practice talking to myself. Yeah, I know, it sounds so weird, but think of networking as a performance. There are only so many situations you can be in, phrases people use or questions people ask. The more you practice and rehearse them, the better you become,” says Book.
“Usually the voice in your head is louder than anyone at the event — and that inner voice is what will stop us from approaching others, contributing to the conversation or saying anything at all,” says Bendtzen.
“Give that inner voice a name to separate it from the real you. Then, when it pops in your head, you can identify it and say, ‘Oh, that’s just Jack’ and tell it to hush up so you can focus on meeting some new people!”
Leverage your strengths
You might not see it that way, but being shy can actually be an advantage when it comes to networking. And making the most of your existing strengths is a much less daunting thought than trying to be someone you’re not.
“People will naturally be drawn to you. Shy people are much more approachable than loud boisterous people who need to be the center of attention. Use it to your advantage. Offer a welcoming smile and, as hard as it might be, make eye contact with people. Those are very easy ways to invite people to join you in some easy conversation,” says Bendtzen.
The bonus of being shy is that you might be a much better listener than a talker. And that’s a good thing. “People want to feel heard, so use your listening skills and you will be surprised how many people will remember you for the mere fact that you let them talk,” says Bendtzen.
Book says it might also be easier for a shy person to connect with others on a deeper level: “You do not come off as aggressive and when you do talk to someone it feels really genuine because it is harder for you to do. That actually makes connecting with you easier.”